Interview originally published by Moebius Journal as On Inspiration and the Muse: An Interview with Kevin Clark
Spring 2004 | Volume 2, Issue 1: The Muse & Modern Culture
by Matt NovakMATT NOVAK: When did you first discover that you had the Muse of poetry hovering about your head? That is, when did you first realize that you had the talent and insight to become a “nationally-publishing” poet? KEVIN CLARK: When I was a kid, I loved to write and tell stories. In fact, my father wrote for a living. He’d been an English major at Notre Dame and was a journalist for a while before settling into public relations. Every night at dinner, he and my mother encouraged my brothers and me to entertain them with the stories of our school day. But there was a catch: We couldn’t be boring. So I’d tell them about the weirdest thing that had happened that day. Or I’d outright make stuff up. As long as the family was smiling, I knew I had a good gig going. My father was a great storyteller, of course, with a great laugh, and our whole extended family of aunts and uncles could hold a room with marginally true stories. Looking back, I realize now that I always loved the sounds of their words. And even before I was a teenager, I also loved the sound of rock and roll. Especially the beat. So these insistent rhythms found their way into the language of my own essays and poems and stories at school. Sometimes my teachers would read my stuff out loud to the class. Now that was inspirational. But I didn’t know for sure that I had what it takes to get to the level I think you mean until after I’d gone to college at the University of Florida, where the poetry writing profs liked my stuff a lot and encouraged me and told me I oughtta go to grad school. Even then, I didn’t feel especially confident. When I went to UC Davis for my MFA in creative writing, my work—as rough as it was—was treated seriously by these big poets like Karl Shapiro and Sandra Gilbert and Ruth Stone and Thom Gunn. Then one day during grad school, I opened my mailbox and found an acceptance letter from The Georgia Review, a big-time lit mag. That’s when I figured, okay, I really can do this.
MN: Is there a place for a Muse in modern culture, or has the notion of Muse been supplanted to some degree by the prevalence of technology, particularly communication technologies, in the modern day?
KC: Well, poetry itself has long been usurped by other media. Literate folks often read and recited poetry right through the nineteenth century. Presidents read poetry. Lincoln and his wife read poems to one another at night. As you know, Tennyson’s work sold well. Then along came technology: radio and TV and picture magazines and then mass travel and video games and the web. And since the turn of the twentieth century, poetry has gradually become less important to folks. Though there had been a small resurgence lately … But your question is truly interesting to me in another way, Matt. I think the very subject of this interview, the Muse, is actually up for question nowadays. But not simply because of technology, which can certainly be used to enhance art. Centuries ago, folks believed that a creature called the Muse existed. Science has made some of us, and I include myself here, more materialist in our philosophical outlook. I do believe in inspiration, but I don’t believe that there is some ethereal being shooting arrows of creativity across the veil into my soul. When I was talking about inspiration to a Buddhist friend of mine who is a poet and writer of creative nonfiction, I told him that I didn’t believe in some exterior force that leads us to our best work. He said, “So you don’t believe in God, either?” I told him I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic deity, that I doubted there was a Judeo-Christian god who dispenses existence, justice, mercy, and creativity. I think the Muse is a metaphor for that particularly expansive, fluidic state of the imagination when it gets on a good roll.
MN: So if there is no exterior force that leads writers to their best work, then are you suggesting that inspiration is enhanced by craft?
KC: Yes, “enhanced” is a good word, though people usually think of craft as a boring, step-by-step learned skill. When it comes to art, craft is something else. I think of myself becoming inspired by finding ways into a kind of free-flowing, mesmeric state. In The World According to Garp, John Irving has a good line about this transformation: “What Garp was savoring was the beginning of a writer’s long-sought trance, wherein the world falls under one embracing tone of voice.” I suppose I have different methods of getting to that trance, and therein is the most important craft. Most of the time, I go to the blank page or the keyboard and begin typing. Sometimes I play with the sound of a line. Sometimes I take somebody else’s line and reverse the meaning of every word and then go from there into the associative unknown, whatever that may be. Most of the time I have an image or a narrative in mind but no words for it yet. Then, after I have written a few lines, if I’m lucky, I find myself responding in an almost hypnotic manner; distractions fall away. Metaphorically, something in me “crosses over.” This change―or trance―is fired by the imagination, of course, but I do think it has physical attributes. I feel it. I like the word “inspirited,” because for me the word suggests the nexus of imagination and sensation.
MN: Tell us how you, as a professional poet, go about the creative act. Do you rise at 5:00 am, go into your lonely writer’s garret, drink a pot of coffee, and ponder deeply the state of the universe before you put ink to paper? Or is it a somewhat more—you’ll pardon the word—prosaic endeavor?
KC: There is the good schedule and then there is the more common frenzy. And then, off in the distance, there is the idyllic situation.
During summers, I usually get up with my wife and kids, work out maybe three times a week, then get to my study by 10:30 in the morning or so. I write on and off till 4:00 pm. I’ll get phone calls and lunch and there’s plenty of family business, but I’m pretty productive. Last summer, I wrote a number of new poems and drafted a couple of essays. I don’t know yet if the poems will be any good, but I’m always hopeful.
During the school year, I try to do the same, but as you know, Matt, in the CSU there are many many demands on our time, some of which are pointless. Right now, for instance, our department is forced to undergo assessment review, and with the help of other faculty I’m writing a report on the creative writing program. The assessment movement is not merely useless; it’s counterproductive. But that argument’s for another time. Because retired tenured professors have not been replaced, our department is spread thin as cellophane. We’ve dropped from thirty-six tenure track faculty to twenty-one. Anyway, we hope to hire two new professors and so prospects are visiting and we go to all of their presentations and lunches and receptions, as we should. Last quarter you and I were writing reports on candidates for retention and tenure. Service can seem endless. Some of the work is actually important. All of it distracts from writing and teaching.
Given these distractions, I like your word “prosaic.” I have no time for writer’s block, believe me. My goal is to do something every weekday (and as many weekend days as possible) that advances my writing life. I don’t always succeed, but I’m dedicated to squeezing the writing into the openings in my schedule. I must say that you, old friend, as department scheduler, have helped me profoundly by granting me all afternoon classes.There are occasional days of creative bliss, though. Sometimes, often in summer, my wife and I get to go away for a few days to a friend’s cabin on the north coast, and I write for four or five hours and do some deep reading. I don’t ever drink caffeine; it interferes with getting into that trance I described. But yes I do ponder up there. I read poetry and novels and books on physics or whatever, and then my wife and I go for walks. Up there, I’ve had some of my most productive, “inspired” moments and written some of my best poems.
MN: You spoke earlier of being in a trance-like state, but as a poet, do you ever actually know when you’ve been visited by your Muse and somehow transcended the world of the merely human? I’m thinking here of Sir Philip Sidney’s suggestion in his “Apology for Poetry” that flowers can smell sweeter in a poem than they do in a garden, that is, that the poet can create a “reality” that is—to put it crudely—more “real” than nature has created. I’m asking this question naively, but is that what it means to be visited by the Muse: to be in touch with the essence of “nature” itself?
KC: Great question. Let’s assume the visiting Muse is what I’ve been calling the trance. Some might think that to be conscious of the trance is to negate the trance. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for me. I often know when I’m there. I know I’m not displaced. Athletes often call it “being in the zone.” They don’t want to analyze it, but they know when they’re in it. Anyway, it’s a great drug-free rush, a terrific habit to cultivate. I don’t believe it’s any more “real” than any other state. But I do think it’s a most productive addiction.
I don’t want to disappoint folks who see nature in Emersonian terms, but I’m dubious about nature actually having a magical, transcendent “essence.” That said, I do think the “flowers” of my poem can seem irresistibly enthralling while I’m writing that poem. Returning to the poem the next day, it may be that the flowers had been old and stale all along and they need pruning and replanting in the revision process. (Al Landwehr often says that the feeling you get when you’re writing well is equal to that feeling you have when you’re reading the best novel you’ve ever read. As a codicil, he adds that, unfortunately, the next day it turns out your writing isn’t quite up to that novel.) So I try to immerse myself once again in “the zone” and get back to the work of making them alluring. To that extent, Sidney seems metaphorically correct to me: While I’m on a writing roll, my imagination is heightened in such a way as to bring my faculties in close touch with the world of my subjects and images.
Ultimately, I want the finished poem to be a conduit. I want to be able to come back to the poem weeks or months later and find that it takes me back to the trance. If it can get me close to the distinct pleasure I had when writing the poem, if it can put me in touch with the Muse I’d known in the act of its creation, then I think that the poem is ready for the world to see.